Sarah Michelle Gellar is the Heroine Who Battles Monsters and Teen Angst.
The date for this article is July, 1997.
By Dale Kutzera
Thanks to Lawless for providing this article.

      Casting the title role of Buffy The Vampire Slayer, the TV producers chronicled a wish list: an actress who could project a penchant from drama, demonstrate a flair for comedy and wield an aptitude for vampire ass-whupping. They needed a youthful Thespian who could squeeze into constrictive cheerleader togs, but externalize a meaner, more assertive attitude than the vacuous, eye-candy Kristi Swanson in the 1992 theatrical film. Well, they got their wish; her name is Sarah Michelle Gellar.

      "There was no second place," said executive producer Joss Whedon. "We read tons of people and several were staggeringly untalented. Buffy is a touch part. It is a character actress in the part of a leading lady. This girl has to look the part of the blonde bimbo who dies in reel two, and yet she's not that. Buffy is a very loopy, very funny, very strange person - kind of eccentric. Sarah has all those qualities and you don't them in a beautiful, young girl very often. She gave us a reading that was letter perfect and then said, "By the way, it doesn't say this on my resume but I did take Tae Kwan Do for four year, and I'm a brown belt. Is that good?" No, perfect.

      Gellar, a 2-year-veteran of All My Children (she played Susan Lucci's daughter) still found the auditioning routine to be grueling. Slim and compact, with sympathetic eyes and auburn hair, she recalled the process with a voice that maintains perfect diction, even when speaking at ninety-miles-an-hour: "My manager spoke to the Warner Bros. network and they mentioned they had this Buffy show. He thought it would be a great opportunity to use my Tae Kwan Do, and to do comedy and drama. I probably had eleven auditions and four tests. It was the most awful experience of my life, but I was so driven. I had read the script and hear about Joss Whedon and how wonderful he was. I went to the audition the week he was Oscar nominated for his Toy Story screenplay. I thought, `I'm going to have this role.' He tells me I nailed it, but I still went through eleven auditions."

      The series' executive producers applied some key changes to the Buffy character. She's smarter than her big screen incarnation; she's also stronger and no longer the stereotypical Valley Girl. "when you so something week after week," said executive producer Gale Berman, "you have to love this person and believe in them -- certainly in a part even as unbelievable as this. The name `Buffy' doesn't have the value it used to. We don't do the Valley Girl joke. This is an empowered young woman and there are no empowered young women on TV. That separates us from the other high school shows. This girl gets the job done, and I think all kinds of young women will really relate to that."

      "This is very different from the movie," Gellar concurred. "What we did was take the concept of the movie of this 16-year-old girl who is popular and has a perfect life, but there is something missing and she feels the kind of 16-year-old aching that everyone felt in their adolescence; Am I an adult? Am I a child? And, suddenly, she has to save the world. Now she is an outcast. She doesn't fit in. She doesn't know if she wants to be a cheerleader or fight vampires, and that is what makes her interesting and believable. Buffy is a person who is lost, who doesn't know where she belongs - and you feel for her."

      Gellar can relate to every woman's "awkward phase" in junior high school. "That was my time to feel that I didn't know where I fit in. I tried to be jock. I tried to be cool. And I couldn't find my place. I think that is what Willow, Xander and Buffy are all going through. That's what makes them such wonderful friends -- they are helping each other get through this time."

      It was during Gellar's "jock" tenure that she studied Tae Kwan Do. She was also a competitive figure skater for four years and has enrolled in kick boxing, street fighting and gymnastic training to prepare for the series' action sequences. Each episode typically includes a major fight scene, which may stretch into two 18-hours days of rehearsed choreography, and two or three minor fight sequences. "I've never done any street fighting before," explained Gellar. "Tae Kwan Do is really an art form. I never actually used it in combat. The very first time I had to break a broom over some guy's head, I was shaking and crying. I didn't want to do it. I had never hit anyone before. Now it's like, "Yeah, give me the broom. Let me hit somebody!"

      According Whedon, the balance of bloodsuckers and ballistics is problematic because "action and horror are actually more antithetical than comedy and horror. Horror is so much about not being in control of your environment and, in a way, comedy is the same thing -- whereas Buffy, as an action heroine, takes control of her environment. So it's difficult to maintain that balance, but what is fun about the show is we don't know, from scene to scene, which way it's going to go. A scene that starts out very dramatic could end up very funny."

      Each Buffy episode requires an 8-day shooting schedule; the more generic locales include a high school in Torrance, California, and a cemetery in downtown Los Angeles. Most of the work, however, is officiated within an unpretentious Santa Monica warehouse filled to capacity with Steve Hardie's production designs. "Our sets are unbelievable," said Gellar. "In September, Joss and I went through the sets together for the time and I cried because they are so beautiful. You get the feeling, `This is real?'"

      Gellar hopes high schoolers will relate to her heroine: "Buffy has an amazing spirit, and I hope that is never broken. She always finds something positive there is always something good even with all the evil she is surrounded by. She's happy and she'll work through it. Although she has problems at times, she has this wonderful, unbridled spirit and I hope this never gets lost. I would just like to see her cope with life and the situation she has been dealt in the most positive way possible."

      Back in 1992, the feature length film, directed by Fran Rubel Kuzui, debuted to a moderate box office gross but turned into a sleeper at video counters. Making the transition to TV, the Warner Bros. network approved an initial commitment of 13 episodes. Ironically, five years ago, Berman read the movie script and "thought it would make a great TV show. Then the movie came out; it was not a huge success, and the idea for a TV series went away. When the video came out and did really well, however I called Fran [Kuzui] and we thought we would do a series for syndication, not thinking that Joss would have the time in his schedule. But we called his agent and asked Joss and he said, `Yeah, this what I really want to do.'"

      Described by Whedon as a "high school horror show," the pilot depicts Buffy's enrollment in SunnyDale High with is conveniently located on the cusp of Hell Mouth, a mystical portal to wherever it is that vampires, werewolves and other forces of darkness call home. Guided by "Watcher," Giles (Anthony Stewart Head), and aided by awkward buddy Xander (Nicholas Brendon) and shy computer hacker Willow (Alyson Hannigan), Buffy embarks on what's been short-handled as a "mix between Beverly Hill 98201 and The X-Files."

      Whedon wrote the feature-length Buffy while functioning as story editor on Roseanne. Sitcoms are his family's legacy. Whedon's grandfather had written teleplays for the likes of Mayberry R.F.D, and the Dick Van Dyke Show; his father's track record includes Alice and Benson, among others. The younger Whedon's skill with deft dialogue earned him a opportunity to rewrite Speed and an Oscar nomination for Toy Story; he recently polished Alien IV's screenplay.

      But with big shots like Steven Spielberg and James Cameron angling for his work, why did Whedon opt for a sitcom? "It turns out that being a screenwriter in Hollywood is not all it's cracked up to be. People blow their noses on you. I can feel the difference. When I go to the set of Alien, people are very nice, but I'm standing in the corner watching them be very nice. When I'm making this show, I'm telling these stories. I've never had that feeling before. Not only am I telling them, but I'm telling one every eight days. I've been putting other things off, because this is the most unbelievable amount of work." Whedon, in fact, is directing the series' 13th episode. "Joss is always on the set," said Gellar. "He's there to get it right. It's his vision and we're his followers. He's the main focus that keeps us together."

      Both Whedon and Berman feel it's critical to maintain likable, identifiable characters, though this series walks a narrow line between realism and fantasy, humor and campiness. "Think of it as childhood miseries or adolescent nightmares coming into reality," said Berman. "That is the metaphor for the series. Every kid's difficulties are expressed. The episode about a praying mantis, camouflaged a beautiful substitute teacher, is about boys' virginity. This mantis only goes for virgins, so all these guys who have been running around the school putting their manhood out there are virgins. They are all after this beautiful teacher, who turns out to be a this horrible bug. It's about entering manhood and what this is really about. It's fantastic to tell those stories in a different way."

      "The horror and monster attacks have to come from the characters, from their relationships and fears," added Whedon. "It has to be the fact that they are funny, intelligent, normal people responding to the fact that this teacher is a praying mantis."

      Whedon has also conceptualized "The Master", a vampiric supervillain who's sheltered in an ancient church, long ago swallowed by an earthquake, that's nestled beneath the high school. The demon plagues Buffy's dreams and dispatches hellish emissaries to expedite his own escape.

      "There is a suspension of disbelief that is necessary," continued Whedon. "Our characters understand that there is a Hell Mouth, and a vampire slayer, and these things really happen; but the rest of the school just sort of takes it for granted that this is a strange place to be. It's like people living in the world with Superman. They take it for granted."

      Should Buffy prove to be a hit for Warner Brothers, it may anchor an additional evening of programming for the network in late 1997. Whedon would be perfectly content to "put off" feature assignments if he's afforded further exploration of the genre: "I think the best stuff happens when human relationships are twisted and extend into horror a monster show up. That's where the stuff is really scary, when it is somebody's parent or friend that is turning into a monster. It brings up issues that are very real.

      "The thing that scares me the most is people."

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